About 25 years ago, I heard an early twenty-something young man preach. He was extraordinarily gifted, with a public presence and gifting that was unparalleled in my experience. His skills in preaching, illustrating, and capturing crowd attention were stunning. And what he said was rock-solid in theology and application.
But while I was hopeful over what I had heard from this very young man, I didn’t go home giddy with excitement. My enthusiasm was tempered by fear and concern—that a man so gifted might be fearfully tempted. Mindful of such texts as 1 Timothy 3:6 and 5:22 that warn of the perils of pride in ministry—especially for those who enter it prematurely—I responded to his teaching with words very much like these: “That young man will be mightily used of the Lord if he is not swelled up with excessive pride, and if he does not fall into sexual sin. He is very gifted, and his teachings are excellent, but if he does not guard his heart from pride and temptation, we will one day grieve his fall.”
And today, we are. Just recently, this young man—whose celebrity Christian status would be known to many of us—publicly renounced his faith.
In nearly forty years of ministry, I have heard of many leaders who have forsaken Christ completely. While it grieves, it doesn’t surprise. The word for this tragedy is apostasy: a renunciation or abandonment of biblically sound personal faith in Jesus Christ. Apostasy isn’t new. The New Testament warns us about it time and again. And we who are pastors should take the warnings to heart (Acts 20:29-31).
Many readers will know the straightforward answer to the “How can this happen?” question. John explains such departures simply: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us (1 John 2:19). Many people who appear to be in the faith eventually reject the faith because they never really believed it in the first place. According to John, only those who “continue with us” were ever truly of us. Those who don’t endure never believed. Holding fast to Christ with endurance is a final necessary evidence that true saving faith ever existed at all (Matt. 24:10-13; Luke 8:15).
But there is a more complicated (and perhaps more important) “How?” question: How does this happen? How do people, including pastors and acclaimed “Christian” leaders, fall from a place of seeming genuine devotion to Christ into a pit of impenitent rejection of Christ? What are the logistics of apostasy? The question is far from theoretical, since it addresses a very real and personal concern in every believer’s heart. All who have ever sung the words “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it; Prone to leave the God I love”—and have felt them resonate with grief in the soul—will want to know with me how to keep that proneness from becoming reality.
How to Keep Ourselves from Falling
So how do we build ourselves up in our faith to keep ourselves in the love of God (Jude 1:17-21)? The Letter to the Hebrews was written specifically to equip us to resist the temptation to depart from Christ. I approach Hebrews as it has long been approached by most Christians. It is a spiritual rescue operation by an unknown author, in the form of a “brief word of exhortation” (Heb. 13:22) to help some doubting and wavering Christians avoid complete apostasy. It has the appearance of a single sermon—a stirring exhortation to continue in the faith—written down for believers to read throughout all time (if you are interested in hearing Hebrews as a single audible sermon, check this out https://covfel.org/sermon/hebrews-recited/).
The Hebrew believers were wearied and frightened by persecution and suffering. They were enticed to forsake Christ for other things. They felt a tug backwards toward former traditions and were close to abandoning the better (Christ) for the sake of the familiar. People and things that they could see, hear, touch, smell, taste, and hold, had cast a spell on them; while the Unseen One and Invisible Realm were losing their appeal. And Hebrews is written to warn them (and us) about the spiritual errors people often make which turn the possibility of apostasy into reality. There are no less than 20 such mistakes in thinking or choosing of which we need to be aware:
- Mistake #1: Thinking that being close is the same thing as being in.
Hebrews 6 speaks “of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away” (Heb. 6:4-6; see also Luke 8:9-14; 2 Tim. 3:1-9; Matt. 7:22-23; 2 Pet. 1:5-11). While this text is much debated, I take the view that it is saying this: people can have extraordinary spiritual experiences without being Christians. Close is not in. And thinking that it is can be fatal.
- Mistake #2—Thinking that falling away is no big deal.
The author asks us, “How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God” if he or she goes on “sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth” (Heb. 10:26-31, emphasis added)? To reject Christ is bad. To reject him after you’ve had glimpses of his glory, goodness, and truth, is worse; and will produce a severer judgment (Heb. 10:29-31; 2 Pet. 2:20-22). People on the path toward apostasy have stopped believing this; forgetting that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
- Mistake #3: Thinking there is another or better “Truth” than Christ.
In contrast to God speaking in many ways and through many means (including angels) in the past, “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…[who] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature…” (Heb. 1:1-3; 2:1-3). Jesus is God’s best and final Word (John 1:1-18). But those who fall away no longer think so. Apostates are often Sheilaists; converts to the spirituality espoused by “Sheila,” cited in Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart: “My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice … It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself…” Apostates love their own inner voice; what feels right; what goes gentle on their hearts. They prefer whatever or whoever is cool or uplifting or freeing from the inhibiting shackles of the written and Incarnate Word. Apostasy starts when confidence in and commitment to God’s Living and Abiding Word—embodied in the Person of Christ and recorded in the pages of Holy Scripture—weakens (Heb. 4:12, 13).
- Mistake #4: Thinking that there is anything better than Jesus.
The point of Hebrews—and the primary way the author aims to keep us from falling away from Christ is by reminding us that there is nothing and no one better than Christ. Hebrews is all about the surpassing worth and excellencies of Christ. In Jesus we have a better revelation (Heb. 1:1-3; 2:1-4), a better Person—a Son higher than angels (Heb. 1:4-14), a better King (Heb. 1:6-9), a better Prophet (Heb. 3:1-6), a better rest (Heb. 4:6-10), a better promise and covenant (Heb. 6:10-18; 8:1-13), a better sacrifice (Heb. 7:26, 27; 9:11-10:14), a better Priest (Heb. 4:14-5:10; 7:1-28), a better homeland (Heb. 11:14-16; 12:22-24), and a better treasure and pleasure (Heb. 10:34-35; 11:25-26). Apostasy progresses when we begin to wonder if there might be someone or something out there that is better than Jesus.
- Mistake #5: Thinking that you can trust what sin and self say to you.
“Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘Today’ lest any of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” and you “fall away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12-13). People who do not doubt self are vulnerable to sin’s lies. Whenever sin’s temptation says, “This is no big deal”, or “I’m saved and forgiven; no sweat!” or “I can get away with it!” or “I can handle this without getting into big stuff” or “Considering what I’m going through, I have this coming to me”, we must put our fingers in our ears. When we begin to trust our heart’s intentions, and sin’s whispers, the departure is nearer than we realize. Only those who keep on sensing the seriousness and deceitfulness of sin will keep on seeking hard for he who alone can save.
- Mistake #6: Thinking that dropping is a greater danger than drifting.
“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Heb. 2:1). People don’t drop or fall off of steep cliffs of unbelief while in full forward stride towards Christ. Rather, the knot that ties them to the dock of professed faith pulls loose ever so quietly, setting them adrift from their moorings ever so gradually; a drift that proceeds until they plunge over the falls. Catastrophic sins do not lead to apostasy so much as little compromises, little indulgences, little fallings, little doubts, little lusts, little idols, little lies, little departures, little neglects of the Bible, and prayer, and church, and fellowship, and the preached Word. We must guard our hearts from all sins; no matter how small they may appear.
- Mistake #7: Thinking that you can put faith and devotion on cruise control.
“Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (Heb. 4:11). When “believers” feel like they have arrived, and/or no longer need to apply diligence to their faith, their doom is sure. Hebrews is full of words like “strive” (Heb. 4:11; 12:14); “draw near” (Heb. 4:16; 7:19; 10:22; 11:6); “hold fast” (Heb. 3:6; 4:14; 6:18; 10:23); “take care” (Heb. 3:12); “hold firm” (Heb. 3:14); be “trained by constant practice” (Heb. 5:14); do not be “sluggish” (Heb. 6:12); have “patience and endurance” (Heb. 6:12; 10:35; 12:1); “eagerly wait for him” (Heb. 9:28); “run the race” (Heb. 12:1); “struggle against sin” (Heb. 12:4); and “do not neglect” (Heb. 13:2, 16). These are aggressive words describing a rigorous commitment to well-exercised and disciplined faith; an Olympian-like commitment very similar to Paul’s in 1 Cor. 9:24-27. When a pastor (or anyone else) stops going hard after God, Truth, and holiness; exercising his soul for the purpose of godliness, he will likely soon fall away.
- Mistake #8: Thinking that you have tried your hardest to resist trouble, temptation, and sin, and God has let you down.
“Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb. 12:3, 4; emphasis added). Why would the author tell them that they hadn’t shed their blood yet? The answer is debatable, but might I suggest that the Hebrews could have been thinking that they had already given everything they had to fight off sin, and because the battle raged on, God must have failed them.
People often fall away because they think God has disappointed them in their battle with a hard life or bad habits or fierce temptation. Starting with a triumphalist assumption that believing in Christ will take all their struggles away, they are victimized by their own faulty theology. And feeling a profound “disappointment with God” people—like Pliable in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, quit the journey and return home.
- Mistake #9: Thinking that Jesus doesn’t know or understand or care.
“[Jesus is able to]…sympathize with our weaknesses…[So] let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 2:17, 18; 4:14-16). The author of Hebrews reminds his readers more than once of the sympathetic care of their High Priest and of his intercessory prayer (Heb.7:25) because the Hebrews were doubting the Savior’s grace for them in their afflictions. Many today make the same mistake. They depart from Jesus, thinking that he has first departed from them. He feels distant and aloof, even though he knows their infirmity even better than they—and is willing and able to meet their need. Instead of persistently drawing near to the throne of grace to find mercy, they pull back in fear and unbelief.
- Mistake #10: Thinking that this world—with its pleasures and treasures—is better than the next.
Moses saw what apostates don’t. He chose “rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking for the reward (Heb. 11:25, 26). And what reward was that? A better heavenly country where Jesus is (Heb. 11:16). For this same reason, early believers “joyfully accepted the plundering of their property [in compassion for others] since [they] knew that [they themselves] had a better possession and an abiding one” (Heb. 10:34). The author of Hebrews pleads on this basis that they “not throw away [their] confidence, which has great reward” (Heb. 10:34-35).
Peel off the outer layers and PR statements of apostates—all the words finding fault with the Church or the repressive and hateful teachings of the Bible—and you will find that either treasure (money) or pleasure (usually of an illicit sexual variety) are not far below the apostasy surface (Luke 8:14; Phil. 3:18, 19; 1 Tim. 6:8-10; 2 Peter 2:1-22).
- Mistake #11: Thinking that you can go it alone.
“…[E]xhort one another every day…that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin…[and] Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet, together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near…Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls…” (Heb. 3:12, 13; 10:25, 26; 13:17).
True biblical soul-care is a spiritual community project. Those who neglect it will wander and those who wander will neglect it. Withdrawal from fellowship and pastoral care is both a cause and an effect of a wandering heart. Notice the words “every day” and “all the more” in our texts: they speak of intentionality, frequency, and urgency that increase with the passage of time. When a daily earnest pursuit of New Testament one-another’s flags and fades, faith, and faithfulness will, too.
- Mistake #12: Thinking that you are going it alone.
“Be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Heb. 13:5, 6). The discontent that leads to departure is rooted in doubt about the ever-present care and love of God. If J.I. Packer is right (and he is) in saying, “Living becomes an awesome business when you realize that you spend every moment of your life in the sight and company of an omniscient, omnipresent Creator” (J.I. Packer, Knowing God)—then living becomes awful business when you do not realize it. When a man—either because of great suffering or great fear or great temptation—feels like alone and lost wanderer in the Cosmos, he will soon look for someone or something other than Christ to keep him company. So let us never fail to keep on drawing near to him no matter how often he seems to be far away; knowing that our persistent faith will be rewarded (James 4:8).
- Mistake #13: Thinking that nobody knows the troubles you’ve seen.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). This cloud of witnesses includes those who are listed in Hebrews 11; men and women who “were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated…” (Heb. 11:15-38).
We are not alone in whatever afflictions we may endure, for the company of the faithful is filled with those who have suffered for their faith. For this reason, we shouldn’t ever feel like nobody has seen the troubles, the trials, the taunts, and the mockings that we have seen (see 1 Cor. 10:13). Truth is: we are going to suffer, and we are not alone. Apostates don’t like this. Those who abandon the faith often do so because the cost of faith is too high. They’d rather have a cloud of applauding witnesses then suffering ones. Often, they can see that faithfulness will bring persecution, and they don’t want to pay that price (Gal. 6:12).
This is why alleged believers today start denying unpopular teachings of the Faith. It is not because they are insightful. It is because they are scared; scared of suffering for the Truth. The dread of being mocked (as were the believers of old, Heb. 11:36) is a particular temptation of our times. Nobody wants to be uncool. Nobody wants to be passé. Nobody wants to be on the wrong side of the PC police. Nobody wants to look like a hater. Nobody wants to swim against the current of what the world thinks is right and just and good. Nobody wants to feel the scorn of being a cultural non-factor and non-player.
The temptation to pursue stardom must be resisted; for when we grow more concerned to be cool than to be holy, we are wandering far from Christ.
- Mistake #14: thinking that your suffering is proof that God is unfair or mad or arbitrary in how he treats you.
The point of Hebrews 12:3-11 is that the sufferings we endure are evidence of God’s love, not his anger or injustice of neglect. “The Lord disciplines those he loves” and “he disciplines us for our good” (Heb. 12:6, 10). It is clear from Hebrews 12 that some of the first readers were interpreting suffering differently than this. They saw it as evidence of God’s rejection or disfavor—and so a good reason to abandon their faith. If God didn’t love them enough to make their lives suffering-free, then why bother with God? Failing to see the mysterious loving hand of providence in their afflictions, they reasoned that a loving God wouldn’t let this happen. And if he isn’t loving, then the whole Jesus thing must be a fraud. For this reason, the eye of faith must see the good in trials and embrace them for their reward.
- Mistake #15: Thinking that there just won’t be enough grace to finish the race.
“… Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:14-16). The implication of this text is that people do not hold fast to their confession because they do not realize that there is a High Priest who knows the challenges of human existence and gives mercy and grace in time of need. Those who fall away doubt this. They think that in their time of need, grace will not be enough. But the New Covenant promise of God is—and we have to keep believing it with an active, focused faith—that Jesus will give grace for everything; even the grace needed to obey him and keep his Law (Heb. 8:10; 10:16). There will be grace to help in time of need. And it will always be in time for your time of need.
- Mistake #16: Thinking that changeable things will last and satisfy.
The pleasurable things of earth are fleeting (Heb. 11:24-26). Everything on earth—whether good or bad—wears out and either is changed or changes (Heb. 1:11, 12). In searching for something that can be counted on to last, many take their eyes of the one unchanging Reality that evermore will be. Jesus Christ alone is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is the same, and his years will have no end (Heb. 1:10-12; 13:8).
Only Jesus is the unfailing and unchanging Center in life. Dr. Packer urges us to know this God as he is: “God did not need to be made, for he was always there. He exists forever, and he is always the same. He does not grow older. His life does not wax or wane. He does not mature or develop. He does not get stronger, or weaker, or wiser, as time goes by. ‘He cannot change for the better,’ wrote A.W. Pink, ‘for his is already perfect; and being perfect, he cannot change for the worse.’” Lose sight of this one Constant and you will lose your way.
- Mistake #17: Thinking that you are just too tired to carry on—and that the rest you need is here and now.
Weariness and rest are vital themes in Hebrews—the former as a cause, and the latter as a preventative, of apostasy. Faith, service, obedience, persecution, and the fight against sin are all tiring to both spirit and body. People get fainthearted as they face the hostility of the world and its temptations (Heb. 12:3, 4). They grow tired of God’s discipline and correcting measures (Heb. 12:5, 6). They grow weary of the battle against sin that “clings so closely” (Heb. 12:1). They grow sluggish (Heb. 6:12)—experiencing a kind of spiritual malaise and lazy dullness of mind and heart due to battle, ministry, and persecution fatigue. They neglect to do good to others—most likely, at least in part, because of weariness (Heb. 13:16; Gal. 6:9). Ministry is work after all, and work takes energy (Heb. 6:10). People (including, if not especially pastors) can groan (sigh with weary sadness) if people do not respond rightly to leadership or ministry (Heb. 13:17, 18). Sighing and sadness are familiar to us all. Even Jesus and Paul were susceptible to such weariness, discouragement, and tears (Matt. 18:17; 2 Cor. 6:3-10; Heb. 5:7). Of course Jesus—being without sin or doubt—never succumbed to the temptation of despair or unbelief. And as for Paul, it appears that he didn’t very often either (2 Cor. 4:7-9).
Like Israel of old (Heb. 3-4), we all long for rest, and when it doesn’t come when and how we want it, we’re tempted to look for relief and respite in some other place. “It shouldn’t be this hard!” is a common expression of wanderers and apostates. “I’m just tired of the battle” is another. People can get plain sick and tired. And when languishing, are tempted to cast off Christ. We can all have times when we want to go back to Egypt!
The remedy for our weariness is not quitting the fight or race, but practicing Sabbath with a view towards eternal rest. God himself has set an example of Sabbath rest which we all need to heed (Heb. 4:4). As I say elsewhere; “When God rested on the seventh day after Creation, it wasn’t because he was tired and needed a break. It was because he knew we’d get tired and would need a break” (Shorey, 30/30 Hindsight: 30 Reflections on a 30-Year Headache). The Sabbath was made for our good (Mark 2:27). We would do well to practice some form of a weekly day of rest from normal labors.
But weekly rest alone will not remedy the weariness blues. We must have hope for an eternal rest—and live for that rest everyday of our lives. Nothing will so invigorate the soul as an anticipation of heavenly rest, and our eternal replenishment of soul and body in the presence of Jesus (see Rev. 14:13). But if we do not have eternity in view and the promise of an awaiting rest, we will cave and quit here and now.
- Mistake #18: Thinking that God doesn’t see or will not remember or reward your service.
Put in simple terms, there are a lot of people who think that faith, ministry, and service are not worth it. What’s to be gained? Who cares? Who notices? Who keeps records? Where is the payoff? Does anyone appreciate what I do? Pastors (and church members) who lay down their lives to make and multiply disciples, but see minimal results, wonder why they keep on doing what they do. This is why the author of Hebrews wrote Hebrews 6:10-12. People may not notice. But God does. And if we think that God doesn’t notice, the temptation to quit will be acute.
The concepts of reward, of promise, and of inheritance as God’s way of remembering and honoring faithful living are pretty key in Hebrews, and so, we must conclude, must be critical in fighting off all impulses to quit (Heb. 10:32-39; 11:6, 8-10, 26). God sees. God remembers. God rewards. Promised inheritance is coming. Remember this to your everlasting joy. Forget it, and you may well never finish the race.
- Mistake #19: Thinking that what you are a part of is small and inconsequential.
Since God’s work is often slow and imperceptible in its growth, we can be fooled into thinking it is small and inconsequential in its scope; and the path to apostasy can be paved by blindness to the wonder of it all. Heb. 12:22-28 is an antidote to such distorted thinking. What you and I are a part of is big. We need to see the cosmic nature of what God is doing, even while we serve in our tiny corner of his vineyard. We are part of the assembly of the Firstborn and of a festal gathering of angels! The kingdom of God is massive and unshakable. If we don’t see it, the day will come when we will no longer want to be a part of it.
- Mistake #20: Thinking that God is someone less than he is.
At the end of the day, the best way to overcome our proneness to wander is to have fixed and settled views of God. Maybe this is why Hebrews reminds us of these truths about God:
- His self-disclosure in the radiant Image of his Son (Heb. 1:1-3)
- His supreme sovereignty as Builder-Creator of all (Heb. 3:4)
- His glory that invites our awe (Heb. 12:28, 29)
- His vengeance to repay our sins (Heb. 10:30, 31)
- His love to discipline our character (Heb. 12:4-11)
- His [sworn] integrity to keep his promises (Heb. 6:13-19)
- His covenant to never let us go (Heb. 8:8-12; 10:16)
- His grace to cover our guilt (Heb. 2:9)
- His justice to remember our work (Heb. 6:10)
- His pleasure that commends our faith (Heb. 11:1, 6)
- His Kingdom that will never be shaken (Heb. 12:22-28)
- His inward work to secure our obedience (Heb. 13:20, 21)
Hebrews fixes our gaze upon God. And the reason is that “nothing so restores the ruined, so strengthens the weak, so comforts the sorrowful, so lifts the fallen, so sustains the infirmed, so raises the downcast, so binds up the broken, so heals the wounded, so satisfies the hungry, so dignifies the oppressed, and so recovers the wanderer, as does a steady, everyday, life-long gaze of the soul upon the being and beauty of God. If you want grace not to quit, make an adoring vision of God the daily impassioned pursuit of your life” (Shorey, 30/30 Headache, p 30).
Let us stay vigilant and faithful. Let us consider these mistakes made by those who lose their way, and then commit—through personal devotion, meaningful fellowship, consistent church-life, conscious submission to pastoral care, and focused and determined trust in the great High Priest who intercedes daily for us—not to make those same mistakes.
And as we keep ourselves in the love of God (Jude 1: 21), let us know that he will be keeping us (Jude 1: 24, 25); which, after all, is the only real hope we have.
“When I fear my faith will fail, Christ will hold me fast;
When the tempter would prevail, He will hold me fast.
I could never keep my hold through life’s fearful path;
For my love is often cold; He must hold me fast.
He will hold me fast, He will hold me fast;
For my Savior loves me so, He will hold me fast.
“Those He saves are His delight, Christ will hold me fast;
Precious in his holy sight, He will hold me fast.
He’ll not let my soul be lost; His promises shall last;
Bought by Him at such a cost, He will hold me fast.
He will hold me fast, He will hold me fast;
For my Savior loves me so, He will hold me fast.
“For my life He bled and died, Christ will hold me fast;
Justice has been satisfied; He will hold me fast.
Raised with Him to endless life, He will hold me fast
‘Till our faith is turned to sight, When He comes at last!
He will hold me fast, He will hold me fast;
For my Savior loves me so, He will hold me fast.”
(Lyrics by Ada Habershon, 1906; Music by Keith and Kristen Getty, Getty Music, ©2013.)